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School policies turn pranks into sex offenses.

COLORADO SPRINGS -- Overidentification of adolescents as sex offenders is a growing problem in a time of public clamor for get-tough policies on crime. Paul M. Isenstadt said at a symposium on addiction disorders sponsored by Psychotherapy Associates.

"Right now, one of my main concerns is that as a result of the whole emphasis on sex offender therapy, we're seeing a large, large number of juveniles being pulled into the legal system for inappropriate behaviors that historically may not have been considered law-violative but now are automatically charged," cautioned Mr. Isenstadt, a social worker at ComCor Inc., a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit community corrections program.

Take, for example, an adolescent who touches someone at school inappropriately. When a complaint is made to the school principal, the police officer assigned to the school will be notified.

"Automatically that student is going to be charged with a sex offense. In contrast, adults are going to have a lot more review of the facts before a case is filed. We have what I believe is somewhat of a net widening in the juvenile area," he said at the symposium, cosponsored by the Penrose-St. Francis Healthcare System.

Ann Freeman of the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections agreed. "We call that the bra-snapper phenomenon," she added.

She has, for example, a youth under correctional supervision because he dropped his trousers and did a "mooning" on a school bus. This is from all available evidence a basically normal kid who committed a stupid youthful prank.

"He was put on formal probation by the court for 2 years," recalled Ms. Freeman of Colorado Springs. "And while I certainly don't think that his behavior was appropriate, this is a kid who's never misused his power in any other way. For him to be adjudicated as a sex offender isn't right."

Mr. Isenstadt noted longitudinal studies demonstrate that 80% of juveniles who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior do not become adult sex offenders. In contrast, 70% of adult offenders began their deviant sexual behavior in adolescence.

To identify those adolescent sex offenders at greatest risk of recidivism, both Mr. Isenstadt and Ms. Freeman make extensive use of two structured, empirically guided, nonactuarial juvenile risk assessment instruments that have the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board's stamp of approval. They are the Juvenile Sex Offender Assessment Protocol (J-SOAP) and the Estimate of Risk of Adolescent Sexual Offense Recidivism (ERASOR). Neither has been validated, but they are very helpful when used in conjunction with the clinical interview.

The J-SOAP uses 26 predictive factors divided into four scales. Two of the scales--sexual drive/preoccupation and impulsivity/antisocial behavior--are fixed in nature. The other two, which involve more changeable items, are the intervention and community stability/adjustment scales.

Mr. Isenstadt said impulsivity/antisocial behavior and sexual preoccupation best distinguish the 20% of kids at highest risk for repeat sexual offenses. "The kids I see who are most concerning are the ones with histories of criminal behavior, exposure to domestic violence, and care-giver inconsistencies--10 foster homes, 6 residential treatment centers. Many of these kids have been acting out sexually aggressively, often also committing property crimes," he said.

Ms. Freeman noted that J-SOAP is useful in children as young as age 10 years in terms of their cognitive development. Since many 12- and 13-year-old sex offenders function at age 8-9 cognitively, rendering the J-SOAP inappropriate, the first step in evaluating a juvenile sex offender has to be a determination of developmental level.

For boys developmentally younger than 10 and for girls, Ms. Freeman tends to use the ERASOR, which has more fluid, dynamic predictive factors.


Denver Bureau
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Title Annotation:Forensic Psychiatry
Author:Jancin, Bruce
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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